Why Autism is Hard to Understand

Challenging perceptions of autism and how the inconsistent behaviours of autism are interpreted.

Why Autism is Hard to Understand

There is a saying “If you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met ONE child with autism” and this sums up the concept of autism being a spectrum of behaviours which vary greatly in each individual. Unfortunately, many people make the mistake of thinking they know what autism is because they know someone with autism.

This makes it frustrating for parents with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) children. They are already facing the social stigma of having a child (or children) with socially inappropriate behaviours. The last thing they need is for people to tell them their child’s behaviour is not autism and is just the child being deliberately naughty.

Autism in a nutshell is characterised by;

  • (a) problems in social interaction
  • (b) problems in communication
  • (c) limited, or repetitive patterns of behavior, interests and activities

Most individuals with ASD will also have comorbid problems such as ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactive disorder), anxiety issues, sensory integration problems and so on. Parents with ASD children face quite complex challenges in dealing with all of these issues.

The classical stereotype of autism is a child who is non-communicative, does something repeatedly (like headbanging), and is off in their own world. Most people will not realise how these problems actually translate in reality to children with autism, so here are some examples.


Social interaction

Breaks unspoken social rules all the time – even if we know they have learnt the rules because we have told them 101 times that very same day.

The way we processes information and prioritise it is called executive functioning. Children with ASD have poor executive functioning. For example they might know it is inappropriate to smile when being told off, and this will get them in further trouble. However, their mind wanders back on to their obsessive interest eg. Minecraft. Somewhere in there they know they shouldn’t smile and may try to cover it and get in trouble anyway because they have no subtlety at all.

Mama, did you know your eyes have different colour dots in them?

Some autistic children want to interact and be social, seeking out social interactions but do so really anti-social like! For example they’ll come along and interrupt a conversation and then invade personal space by standing too close, and then start making annoying noises trying to be funny. Then they’ll start talking about something completely unrelated to the conversation or ask strange questions related in some sort of obscure way to the conversation. They’ll say things over and over especially if not acknowledged, and sometimes will do this anyway no matter what.

All the building subtle cues of annoyance, irritation, boredom from others goes unnoticed. Usually the ASD child is completely unaware until someone gets verbally angry and communicates this literally.

Social interactions are a minefield for ASD children. They do not learn from osmosis. They often fail to make the connections that other children do. They miss subtle non-verbal cues. They have poor emotional regulation, poor executive functioning, rigid ways of thinking and viewing the world, and can have a tendency to argue.

No, they aren’t avoiding me. We’re playing a game.



Social communication comprises of using receptive (understanding/comprehending what is said) and expressive (using words to communicate emotions, thoughts, needs) language abilities.

Just because you know an ASD child can talk and express themselves, doesn’t mean that they are able to express what is going on in their head when we need them to (or when they need to share information with us). Just because they have shown this ability before doesn’t mean they can do it for the current situation. And even worse, just because the child with autism is able to reflect back to you what you have asked them to do, doesn’t mean they have actually absorbed the information by the time you are annoyed and repeating yourself.

Did you hear what I said!?


Why didn’t you do it?

I don’t know.

Things like this cause no end of frustration even if we are fully aware of these issues and their origin in autism. For people who don’t have a sound understanding of autism, this frustration is often greater as it is accompanied by perspectives of negative judgment about intentions and deliberate misbehaviour / noncompliance. And of course there will be times where misbehaviour or non-compliance are deliberate – all children will behave in these ways at times!

A good way to explain processing difficulties is this; Two children are jogging down the street. One has autism, the other does not. They have just passed a rubbish bin. Someone yells an instruction to close the lid on the bin. The child without autism might take a couple extra steps before processing the instruction and turning around. The child with ASD might take 4 extra steps and by that time has absorbed the instruction. Might take another couple before making a decision to turn around. Will often trip over own feet in this process. By this point however, most people will typically assume they were heard, and are being ignored, lending to repeating the instruction. This can start the processing all over again for the child. Multiple instructions do this too.

What was the first thing you told me again?


Restrictive or Repeated Behaviour

No one wants to hear about Minecraft 50 times a day from a neurotypical child who loves the game. This can be annoying. Imagine the intensity of hearing about Minecraft 1000 times a day from a child with autism. It is easy for parents to dismiss the experience of parents with ASD children because they all know similar frustrations.

Autism multicoloured puzzle piece display
Autism can be hard to understand – it is made up of so many pieces. Credit: Torley | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

The difference though is the intensity and level of the frustration. It is full on in only the way another parent of a high needs / special needs child will have experienced.

Most children will at some point have engaged in singing song off their favourite tv show. However an autistic child is more likely to do this for everything under the sun (and the moon). They’ll ask a question. Then they will ask the same thing again. And again. And again. In the space of a minute. Then they’ll hear something funny someone said about a bat and then they will sit there saying…

bat. bat. bat. haha the bat. so funny the bat.

…over and over long past the expiry date of the joke.


All of these things are related to having autism spectrum disorder and this is only the apex of the iceberg. There are many complex realities for parents raising ASD children, and one of them is the question of where is the line between autism and misbehaviour – a question that all parents with ASD children struggle with daily.

If you are reading this and you are not a parent of an ASD child, dial back the judgement. A lot of the behaviours you may be seeing and judging are not a lack of discipline problem. It is not the parents’ fault. A lot of the time it isn’t the child’s fault either. You are likely seeing the gamut of behaviours of autism and associated issues and there just is no easy solution…. cause if there was believe me, I would have used it by now.

I lost my magic wand when I was flying over Never Never Land. What are you gonna do about it?


One Response to "Why Autism is Hard to Understand"

  1. therestlessmouse  23 June, 2016 at 6:07 am

    With my son, who is now 30 and working part time cleaning banks, his job coach is working with him to find full time work – he seems to be dragging his feet- It is really hard to figure out what part of this obstacle is fear of failure, what part autism (He HATES talking on the phone) and there is also an element of laziness.

    I guess it doesn’t matter, I just have to keep trying different strategies to get him to do what needs to be done. This new job coach is a real go-getter so hopefully she will find a good fit for him.


WW Discourse - Have your say!